Sunday, December 09, 2007

Alexandria: return to antiquity

For a second class seat, the 8:15am train ride from Cairo to the seaside city of Alexandria was quite pleasant: clean, soft pleather seats, and a nice view of endless farm fields. We pass many poor areas, tenements and markets. Most of the roofs are still unfinished, with the rebar sticking out like antennae. It is said that once you finish building your house, then you must pay a type of property tax, so the crafty Egyptians simply leave the roofs unfinished.

When we arrive in Alexandria about 11am, we are greeted by a gentle downpour. Hallah, my friend from Merkaz Fajr and I buy an umbrella at the station. Made in China. Everything in Egypt is made in China. We make our way to the Corniche or boardwalk. We stop by a Brazilian Coffee shop for coffee and hot chocolate to warm ourselves up. When we go upstairs, a waiter tells us that we need to vacate the shop in 10 minutes for prayers. So, we go downstairs again, order our beverages, and imbibe them as we stand and eat our desserts.

When we walk on the corniche, I spot a woman standing on a big rock with a fishing pole. I slowly make my way over to her, wanting to engage her in a conversation with my rudimentary Arabic.
“Is there fish here?” I ask her.
“Yes. A lot.”
The woman is middle-aged and comes once a week with her husband. She cooks the fish at home and tells me that it is “helwa!” or sweet. Her husband is at prayers for the moment, so she is fishing alone for a while.

As we continue to walk on the corniche, we receive many stares for obvious reasons: what is an Asian guy doing with an Egyptian girl? They must be married! So, that was our cover--Hallah became my wife for the day. I didn't even have to buy her any flowers. If only all relationships can be this easy...

We visit the Citadel Fort Qaitbay and then the Catacombs, ancient tombs that have very interesting paintings that mix Greek and Pharaonic imagery.

At most places that we visit, from the restaurant to the shop where I buy a bottle of water, vendors are very curious about us: where do you come from? They ask Hallah if she is Egyptian. If so, is she married to me?

Return to Cairo—lights out!
In the evening, we buy our return tickets to Cairo. However, we sense something is amiss as our tickets only cost LE 6 (about $1.00). Perhaps, this is the super slow train that will arrive at midnight? Once we board the train, we realize why our ticket is so cheap--there are no lights; the entire train is completely dark! Generally, I have a poor sense of smell, but I can detect a very strong stench of fresh urine mixed with shit wafting through the entire car. I tell Hallah to keep moving to the next car.

We finally spot an open seat and sit down. The window is cracked. Perhaps, a big rock hit it some time ago. It is yellow and stained and dusty. It is also half open, allowing a cool breeze to flow in. It doesn’t bother me, but Hallah minds, so she asks if I can close it. Before I get up to do anything, the gentleman next to us closes the window for us. He begins talking to us.

A medical student, Amjad is 21 years old and from the town of Tanta, close to Alexandria. Because it is dark, it is hard for me to describe him except that he has strong features and is very warm. Occasionally, some light from a passing train lights up our car for a few seconds. I catch a glimpse of his face. He has big, round eyes and a strong chin. He is not fat, but could easily be a wrestler. Amjad speaks with competent, but halting English. In about three more years he will become a doctor. He was in Alexandria today to search for a flat to buy. However, there are many cheats in Egypt so that very often, after you buy a flat, two or three others will say they have also bought the same flat, so it goes to court, which will take five years or so to resolve.

Amjad asks me, “What do you think of Egypt?” I seem to get this question a lot lately.
“I love the people. They are kind and warm,” I reply.

“What do you think of hygiene here?” Of course, I complain about the air pollution and trash. Amjad explains that he avoids eating in most restaurants because they are unsanitary. It makes sense, but he speaks like he is a foreign tourist, disdaining the street stall food.

He lives with his mom and brother. His dad is an engineer and mom is a teacher. She is sitting at the end of the car. “My father visited Holland and loved that country. It is so much better there! In America, it is so much better than Egypt, yes? More advanced in technology? Cleaner?” Amjad asks me very direct and leading questions, almost as if he wants me to confirm his opinions.

Hallah again asks me, “Why are there no lights on this train?!”
Amjad replies, “This is Egypt!” He smiles.

He says, “I hate Egypt! Where there are no lights on the train, the windows are cracked and broken.”

He asks, “Is it hard to find job in America?” I tell him there are many, many opportunities.

Amjad says he fell in love with America after he saw the movie “Prison Break” recently on his computer.

He is curious about how the American people view Egypt, especially after the 9/11 attacks. “Do they think we are terrorists?” he adds. I explain that Americans generally think of four things in Egypt: Pyramids, the Nile, Luxor and King Tut. This seems to comfort him a little, at least.

Amjad is also bothered by the ubiquitous pollution. “Leaders in Egypt do not care about the trash. They steal from the people. Egypt is a very rich country: lots of resources, but the leaders steal from the people.”

Amjad strikes me as bright, warm and ambitious. He asks me several times about the process of getting a visa to go to the US to study or work. He says in Egypt, a doctor can only make LE 400 ($80) on average or maybe LE 5,000 depending on experience, intelligence and the office.

He only goes to Cairo once a year or so. He says, “I may never see you again.” Well, I’m in Cairo until end of June, so if you come, call me, I tell him.

“At first, I was reluctant to speak to you. I was afraid,” He confided to me.
“I am glad that you spoke to me. In the future, when you see a foreigner on the train, just approach him and the worst he’ll say is maybe he is tired and doesn’t want to talk. Most of the time, you will have a good experience,” I advise him.

A small group of rowdy men behind us are laughing at us. Perhaps, they are amused by the spectacle of an Egyptian speaking with an Oriental in English. So, Amjad tells me that if they talk to me, I should avoid talking to them. Also, if they ask, that Hallah is my wife, because in Egypt, there are no boyfriends or girlfriends. He tells me this more for our safety than anything else, it seems.

Also, “sometimes in the dark, beware of thieves.” Now, I am a bit nervous.

When Amjad gets off the train, I shake his hand and tell him to contact me by email and phone. If he ever visits Cairo, he has at least one friend.

Come to Tanta!
Before we leave Tanta, a new couple sits in front of us. The young woman is 21 and a Muhigabat, or a woman who wears the hijab, the garment that covers the hair and neck. After a few minutes, they begin talking to Hallah. They, like most Egyptians, are very warm and welcoming. Mohammad is a 19 year student studying science. She studies home economics at Al Ahzar, Cairo’s oldest and most famous religious University. While he speaks a little basic English, she speaks none, so Hallah becomes our “turgamun” or interpreter. She strikes me as very outgoing and gregarious, a trait that I usually do not associate with Egyptian women. (Of course, I’ve not met too many in my one month here).

Beginning with the basics, she asks if I am Chinese, Korean, or Japanese. Wanting to make my background a little more exciting than it really is, I tell her I am from Malaysia and that I am a student.

“Are you Muslim?”
“Yes,” I reply.
“Do you pray?” she inquires.
“Dimon” (always) I reply.
She smiles.
The couple talks with us for the duration of our journey back to Cairo. They invite us to their hometown of Tanta for a small Eid or holiday in January 2008. A kind offer. I don’t know if the invitation is genuine or they are simply being polite to two strangers on the train. Tanta has much culture and many historical sites, she explains. And they have many mosques.

She and Hallah exchange phone numbers. When she asks me for mine, I tell her that I don’t remember my number, and that she can always contact me through Hallah.

After we leave the train station, she and her friend help us to get a cab. Again, she asks for my phone number. Again, I tell her that she can find me through Hallah.

We return home, exhausted after a productive and very memorable day filled with adventures.

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